Necessary Decisions: Taking Sides for Schiavo

By Verhey, Allen | The Christian Century, April 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Necessary Decisions: Taking Sides for Schiavo


Verhey, Allen, The Christian Century


LIKE MARCH MADNESS in the basketball world, participants in the debate over Terri Schiavo seemed driven to pick a team and root it on to victory, vanquishing the opponents. With her death, it's time to put the madness behind us and attend not just to the passion but to the compassion on both sides of the debate. Both sides, after all, claimed to be on Terri's side. Consider, then, two arguments, both Christian and both "pro-Terri."

The first argument: We must provide food and drink for Terri. Terri might not count for much as the world counts, but she surely counts as among "the least of these" in Jesus' parable. "In as much" as you gave food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, Jesus said, you did it "as unto me" (Matt. 25).

To provide food and drink is simply the sort of care one human being owes another. It doesn't matter whether the person is at home or in a hospital or in a hospice. It doesn't matter whether food and drink are provided in a cup or in a bowl, through a straw or through a tube. Moreover, to withhold food and drink is to aim at Terri's death, and that we must not do. We may allow some people to die sometimes when they are going to die anyway, but we may not kill them.

Even if you regard providing food and drink as medical treatment, it must still be regarded as "ordinary treatment," not "extraordinary treatment." The distinction depends not on whether the treatment is customarily given but on whether the benefits to the patient outweigh the burdens of the treatment to the patient. To an unconscious patient like Terri a feeding tube is hardly a burden--and the benefit is life.

If we fail to see life as a good, as a benefit to her, we have evidently accepted an unbiblical and Cartesian dualism of body and soul, reduced the self to its powers of rationality and choice, and reduced the body to being a mere container for what's really important and valuable. Withholding food and drink may be an effective means to make certain that biologically tenacious patients die when their life is a burden to us, but it should be classified with other means of making certain people die, like blowing their brains out. Don't do it! Don't allow it!

I hope you find this argument compelling. I have tried to present it that way. But there is a second "pro-Terri" argument that I hope you also find compelling: We must withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from Terri. Nasal-gastric tubes, J-tubes (feeding tubes placed directly into the intestine) and intravenous lines are medical procedures, and the same standards that apply to withholding or withdrawing of other medical procedures should apply also to artificial nutrition and hydration. Those standards must start from the recognition that caring for Terri requires respect for her integrity. Legally this respect is reflected in the right of competent patients to refuse medical treatment.

Christians regard life as a good, to be sure, but not as a second god. Remembering Jesus and following him, we can hardly make our own survival the law of our being. Christians may refuse medical care so that another may live. They may refuse medical procedures that may lengthen their days but do nothing to make those days more apt for their tasks of reconciliation or fellowship.

It is not shocking that Terri would have suggested she would not want artificial nutrition and hydration if she were in a persistent vegetative state. That decision must be honored if we would respect Terri's Christian integrity. If there were no evidence of such a decision, or very uncertain evidence, then others would have to weigh the burdens and benefits of those medical procedures to Terri. In such cases we still may and still should withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration. If we regard the preservation of her biological life as a benefit to her, then we have evidently adopted an unbiblical vitalism, reduced her to her body and her body to a mere organism. …

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